Saracens seek to make amends as Rugby World Cup looms
Saracens' Steve Borthwick (C) pictured during the European Cup final match against RC Toulon in Cardiff, Wales, May 24, 2014 - by Geoff Caddick
Away from the build-up to next year's World Cup, where hosts England will be bidding to win the trophy for only the second time, this season will be a huge test for London club Saracens.
Just prior to the end of last term Saracens chairman Nigel Wray told AFP: "We are on the verge of history -- or nothing."
They ended up with nothing after losing the European Cup final to a Jonny Wilkinson-inspired Toulon and the following week going down to an agonising 24-20 defeat by Northampton in the Premiership final at Twickenham.
Saracens' already-strong pack has been bolstered by the arrival of aggressive Scotland lock Jim Hamilton, brought in following the retirement of club captain and former England skipper Steve Borthwick while Argentina prop Juan Figallo is another new recruit.
Owen Farrell, currently Lancaster's first choice No 10, will continue to direct operations at fly-half.
But while England's pack is regarded as a world-class unit, doubts remain about whether they have a sufficiently skilful back division to knock reigning world champions New Zealand off their perch.
It was an issue flagged up by Clive Woodward, England's victorious coach in 2003, when he ran the rule over England's backs in his Daily Mail column published Wednesday.
- 'More craft and devil' -
The comments Woodward, himself a free-running and creative England centre made about Farrell "a world-class goal-kicker" who "tackles hard", might apply equally to several current England backs.
"Do I see England winning a World Cup with Farrell starting at No 10?," asked Woodward.
"Not currently, I want to see more craft and devil in his kicking and passing, asking more questions of defences," Woodward added.
The likes of Freddie Burns, who has moved from Gloucester to the perennial contenders Leicester and Danny Cipriani, who showed glimpses of his old form with Sale last season, will look to put the pressure on Farrell and England reserve fly-half George Ford.
Northampton, with New Zealand-born England hooker Dylan Hartley key to their side, will be a side bolstered by the experience of winning both a maiden Premiership title and the European Challenge Cup.
Harlequins, whose side features England captain Chris Robshaw, will also be desperate to maintain their place among he top four.
Bath will be keen to force their way into the top four and plenty of eyes will be turned westwards to see how former rugby league star Sam Burgess fares in his debut union season.
Burgess quit Australia's NRL in a bid to force his way into Lancaster's World Cup squad but whether he can master the 15-man code's complexities in one season remains to be seen.
One southern hemisphere recruit for whom that won't be an issue is World Cup-winning All Black Piri Weepu.
The former New Zealand scrum-half has signed for newly-promoted London Welsh, the 'glamour' club of English rugby back in the 1970s when such greats as JPR Williams, Gerald Davies and John Taylor all played for the Exiles.
In what could be a forerunner of World Cup protocols, Premiership referees have been told to re-assert their authority.
Last season saw referees able to consult television match officials not just on the act of scoring a try but up to two phases beforehand.
The ensuing rows were one thing, but the biggest bugbear for players, coaches and fans alike was the time it took to make a decision.
It also emerged the TMO could intervene himself, as happened controversially in the Premiership final where Saracens were awarded what may have been a match-clinching try on the field, only for it to be disallowed 'upstairs'.
"There has been a tendency to say 'we better check this' or 'we better check that'. But we want none of that now," said Rugby Football Union referees' chief Tony Spreadbury.
Friday: Northampton v Gloucester (1830GMT)
Saturday: Leicester v Newcastle (1400GMT), London Irish v Harlequins (1530GMT), Sale v Bath (1300GMT), Saracens v Wasps (1300GMT)
Sunday: London Welsh v Exeter (1300GMT)